Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three False Constraints

Once again, a call goes out to make games more culturally meaningful. I agree very much with the sentiment, but I've always been frustrated with how designers set themselves up for failure due to the constraints placed on the problem.

In mathematics, computer science, and physics there is a the concept of a 'hard' problem. What does the inside of a black hole look like? How do you identify an NP complete problem? How can we travel faster than the speed of light? All of these are wonderfully interesting, but they are considered ‘hard’ because there may not actually be an answer that is discoverable before the heat death of the known universe.

We’ve turned the creation of culturally meaningful games into a similarly ‘hard’ problem. It doesn’t need to be.

Three false constraints
When we talk about making games culturally meaningful we often limit the discussion in three important ways. The following constraints are completely arbitrary, yet we stick with them like they are some holy mandates from a greater god.
  • Single player: By ‘games’, game developers typically mean ‘single player games’. Multiplayer is either not considered or is treated as a secondary feature.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through content: We seek to create meaning through the use of content created by developers for consumption by players. Only if we author the right content in the form of graphics, movies, music, writing, active and level design will the game have impact. Content created by the players is discounted.
  • Powerful platforms: Inevitably developers talking about ‘video games’ limit themselves to consoles or perhaps high end PCs. There is an assumption that if only we can get better graphics, better AI, bolder levels and more intense explosions, then at some point we will cross over a line in the sand and all must bow before the amazing new reality we have wrought. Big budgets and big tech are clearly essential. The idea that these bits of crafted fluff are secondary to the value provided by the systems of game play is rarely mentioned.

When you relax these three constraints, creating meaningful games becomes immensely easier. We go from a problem domain where there are almost zero compelling solutions to one where there are thousands of solutions. For the rest of the essay I'll cover three big impossibilities facing games' acceptance as a culturally important activity. Each problem appears 'hard' when approached through the lens of our false constraints.
  • "People in a room talking"
  • "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
  • "Reaching a broad audience"
The impossibility of “People in a room talking”
One of the ‘hard’ problems listed by Chris Hecker was the issue of people sitting around a table chatting. This is the mainstay of books and movies, yet it has eluded game developers. According to the false constraints, in order to solve this problem robustly we need the following:
  • Turing AI: A flexible conversational AI capable of passing a Turing test. It would be ideal if we also conquered the uncanny valley and hooked up our AI to virtual actors that were indistinguishable from real humans.
  • AI that can enforce artistic direction: We also need the ability for the developer to seed and control the AI so that the random interactions of thousands of unique players from unique backgrounds results the conveyance of the developer’s crafted message. The AI must therefore not only seem human, but it must understand the intent of the auteur and act as a super human manipulator of the environment and the player's experience.
I would argue that these are ludicrously hard problems. We can currently fake solutions in certain very limited situations, but we are lacking the most basic research necessary to solve these problems in a general fashion.

Even worse, the constraints conflict. There is an inherent tradeoff between increasing the flexibility of our AI and controlling the players experience. "React to the player! But do exactly what I, as the designer, tell you!" is more of a Zen kōan than a solvable problem.

...until you break the constraints
Yet as soon as you break the constraints, conversation becomes a trivial problem. A simple multiplayer online chat room gives the effect of people sitting around a room talking. So does any traditional board game or role-playing game. Or SMS. Or voice chat. Conversation flows naturally.

To the participants in the conversation, this chatter that results is more entertaining than the best writing or acting performed by the top talent in any medium. The tech is simple. The content comes from the players. And the interaction is multiplayer.

The impossibility of "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
Another challenge posed is the goal of saying something meaningful about the human condition.
  • Spatial/temporal/math puzzles that evoke humanity: The vast majority of single player games have their roots in either timing, mathematics or spatial manipulation puzzles. These systems, though entertaining and relaxing, have great difficulty modeling emotions. Often a single player model that attempts to boil down the essence of humanity comes across as dry and soulless. Asking a single player game to evoke rich emotions is much like asking a polynomial to express love. In very limited situations, in the hands of extraordinarily talented people, (see Gravitation or Passage) a single player game can evoke a glimmer from a core group of players who desperately want to believe. But single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition. No matter how prettily we cloak the issue with artful snippets of non-interactive media, the inherent Truth at the heart of the our favorite single player game systems does not deal with humanity.
  • More direct control over the player experience: As an author expressing our vision, it would be ideal if our systems were scripted content that all players will experience within narrow behavioral bounds. If only we could deliver tight directed payloads of content like they do in other media. When an actor cries in movie, the audience instantly empathizes and reflects that emotion back. Game designers need to develop the same reliable techniques of authorial control. Wouldn't it be great if a designer could type up an equation and boom!...players break out in tears or laughter. If only our math and code would whip up a tight roller coaster of an experience that worked for all players, all the time. Yet our control levers are at least one degree removed from those found in other media. We can't simply show a visual trigger that smacks a hardwired emotion button on our monkey brain. Instead we craft mere rules. The player controls their interaction with those rules and how their ultimate experience plays out. In good games, the player is making choices that matter and exploring the systems at their own pace in their own ways. In books and movies, the audience jumps when we, as authors, want them to jump. In games, the player jumps whenever the hell they want to.
Again, these are hard problems.

...until you break the constraints
Why both with spending all this time attempting to imbue cold, heartless single player systems with the essence of humanity when humans are readily available in the form of other players? When you put real people together in a game and create social mechanics to facilitate their interaction, you see an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions. People form friendship, make enemies, fall in love, offer compliments, insult one another, tell hilarious jokes, comfort one another, bond in groups and basically exhibit the entire rich range of social emotion and behavior.

As a designer, you give up on controlling the exact experience. Instead of crafting each moment, you look at the broader possibility space that your social rules create and foster. The play space can be shaped by the designer by manipulating systems, not content. However this is not situation of singular authorship. Rules, like the laws created by governments, interact with culture and citizens of our games in unexpected and surprising ways. We are improv musicians playing off other equally creative members of the band. Multiplayer design is an ongoing process of give and take with the community. In fact, there is a well established name for absolute authorial control in a social environment. It is called a dictatorship and only tends to work when the audience is coerced into playing along. In the voluntary communities of multiplayer games, authorship is a fundamentally multiplayer activity.

Again, you don't need a powerful platform or advanced tech to bring forth a flowering of meaning. And the vast majority of the content created certainly hasn't be edited by some god-like author. Yet the emotions are real and they are brought about through a system engineered by a designer. By massaging the specific economic and social tools that feed and facilitate the human conversation, you gain a set of design techniques capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games.

The impossibility of "Reaching a broad audience"
Another point about the cultural significance of game is that despite our revenue numbers, we actually reach a relatively small number of players compared to other media. A 'dominant' gaming platform like an Xbox or PS3 has sold a meager 20-30+ million consoles. Only a handful of titles sell through more than 1 million copies and these sales are generally in a limited demographic of 14-39 year old boys. Compare this minor audience with other types of media that regularly serve 5 or 6 times as many people across a broad demographic. Yes, our revenue is impressive, but the facts are a AAA core console game will touch a tiny percent of the billions of people reached by other forms of media.

Year after year, the core gaming industry attempts to broaden the market. Nintendo succeeds a little, but the rest fail. But not for lack of trying! Now matter how detailed we make our graphics. No matter how deep with make our narratives. No matter how powerful we make our GPUs. It all fails. Moms, grandfathers, people in China still insist on ignoring the latest greatest Bioware RPG or Unreal shooter. We have our best minds on perfecting the potency of our best genres and still the core market exhibits anemic growth. Reaching a broad audience is apparently hard.

...until you break the constraints
Yet when you broaden your perspective ever so slightly to include alternative platforms not specifically targeted at games, reach is the least of our worries.
  • There are multiple Facebook games that serve over 25 million unique users a month and the current top game Farmville is played by 64 million unique users a month. The Facebook platform where these games live is at 300 million worldwide and is still growing like a weed. 77 million users are in the US along and the current growth rate is 70% compounded every 6 months.
  • Games are one of the most popular classes of app on the most popular smartphone. Smart phones form a platform that will reach over a half a billion people in the coming years.
  • An individual developer can release a Flash game today and reach 10's of millions of unique players. It really isn't a big deal any more to have a game played by a million people.
There is a common theme to all these platforms. Consoles try to turn people into gamers. They attempt to suck outsiders into the gaming culture so that they play on gaming specific devices in gaming specific contexts. The new generation of social, mobile, casual and web games integrate seamlessly into a person's existing life. Instead of asking the player to set aside 2 hours in the evening locked into staring at the output of a big clunky box, they offer players a chance to relax during while waiting for the bus. Instead of asking "how do we create dedicated gamers", we ask "How can games enhance your current life."

I look to the near future and see the reach of games growing dramatically. In the next 10 year, expect to see a single game with over 250 million unique users. That is a quarter of a billion people playing in the same space. Admittedly, we may not recognize the service as a game. The topic will likely be something mundanely meaningful, not elves and dragons. The platforms will also be mundane. Some players will use PCs. Most will use phones. As a bone tossed to a wounded beast, there may even be a thin client for the remaining console players.

The source of the constraints
All this begs the question: Why do so many of the best developers insist on hanging onto these miserable and damaging constraints? There are cultural and economic factors at work.

Cultural Momentum
I am reminded of a mildly diabolical childhood development experiment performed on kittens. In 1970, psychologists Blakemore and Cooper placed several kittens in dark enclosures that only let through vertical lines of light. Several weeks later, they removed the kittens and tested if they could see any sort of horizontal features. The kittens could not. Upon dissection, it was determined that the portion of the visual cortex involved in seeing horizontal lines was irrevocably stunted. Due to the limited stimuli available during its youth, the kitten was physically incapable of ever seeing the horizon. Shortly afterwards, the kittens were killed in an act of kindness.

Most current game developers experienced a similar form of limited stimuli during their youth. An entire generation of introverted boys was raised on 20+ hours a week of Skinnerian gameplay that emphasized content, technology, and single player puzzles. The crème de la crème became game developers. Is it any surprise that they prefer these constraints? Is it any surprise that they are stubbornly incapable of seeing alternative forms of play? Many single player game developers are like children raised in the dark and unlike a helpless kitten, they will defend and justify the validity of their disability until the day that they die.

Economic Momentum
On top of this is the fact that game developers are paid by companies heavily invested in building products based off false constraints. Their bi-weekly paycheck depends on them being passionately invested in making the games that their bosses want them to make. The innovator's dilemma whispers its seductive logic. Why change what you are doing when what you are doing keeps you warm and well fed? Especially when the upstarts are so tiny compared to your efficient mainline business. Economic momentum can turn quickly, however. Just ask the 1500 core developers laid off by EA when they realized that perhaps social gaming wasn't a tiny market after all.

The False Constraints are here to stay
I have little hope in seeing these false constraints cast off completely. Most auteurs abhor change. They stubbornly stick to their dead end craft, serving a smaller and more rarified audience while the world shifts around them. Single player games stuffed with throw away content that only runs on high end machines...these odes to introversion will never die, but they will dwindle.

It takes a new generation of impudent and crass experimenters to create real artistic change. The kids growing up on Facebook games today will barely know today's poison memes of 'beating the game', or 'the Holodeck'. Instead they'll assume that of course you play games with friends. Of course you play primarily on your phone, netbook and other devices that don't make the distinction between playing games and living your life. And of course you, the player, make the most meaningful content in the game. What games will designers raised without the chains of the past end up designing?

You can waste your life flailing at impossibly hard problems or you can make a real difference in game design right now. We are at a point where there exist vast and amazing opportunities to create meaningful games. Here are some concepts to consider if you head in this direction:
  • Human emotions are simple to evoke with games. Make multiplayer games.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through systems of rules. Create rules that empower players to co-create meaningful content.
  • Reaching larger numbers of players is easy. Integrate games into the player's everyday life.
take care

Notes 12/6/2009
This essay prompted some great comments, but I noticed two issues that I hope to help with this addendum.
  • Fear: Gamers, who love single player games, fear the loss of their hobby. This tends to elicit a passionate defense of single player gaming.
  • Lack of foundation: Some readers get caught up on some of the more basic issues and therefore have difficulty grappling with the meat of the argument. This is not your fault, but mine since this essay presents a point of view without spending the time to lay down the foundation underlying the argument. The following are some notes that should help you understand the assumptions I'm drawing upon.
Re: Can't we continue to explore the meaning in single player games?
Yes, the industry will continue to make single player games. They aren't going away and we will continue to spend billions of dollars every year in an attempt to make them more evocative, narratively rich and perhaps even meaningful. All these commercial efforts, combined with the current burst of single player focused indie game devs are bound to create more expressive and meaningful games.

  • If you like our current progress towards short intense consumable experiences
  • If you like games that focus on crafted content over games that focus on creative systems
  • If you like the trend towards turning games into warped shadow of cinema
Then you have nothing to fear. In 10 years, you'll still have games that serve your particular needs. There is a generation of men just like you and our capitalist society will serve your desires until you are no longer economically viable.

However, I believe the number of new culturally meaningful games will trickle in at a depressingly slow pace. The basic reality of our medium is that the opportunities for creating culturally meaningful games based off the three constraints listed are limited in comparison to those present if you break the constraints.

Instead of worrying about what you are losing, instead focus on what we are gaining. Imagine games that connect people together. Imagine games that improve relationships. Imagine games that solve social problems. Imagine games that create understanding. Are these outcomes really all that frightening?

Re: Emotion in multiplayer games
Many players have had poor experiences with multiplayer games due to griefing. See my recent essay on testosterone in games for some explanation of why games played with strangers are often rife with unpleasantness. On the other hand, they've had delightful experiences with single player games. On the face of personal evidence, many deem it silly to state that multiplayer games offer richer, more culturally meaningful play.

Yet a broader perspective is helpful. Personal experience, or even the experience of the community playing your favorite game is a non-representative sample of the larger trends in the industry.
  • On average multiplayer modes rate more highly in terms of fun.
  • On average multiplayer modes retain users longer and are more likely to cause players to say that they would be willing to play again.
  • During user studies, observers witness a wider range of human emotions in multiplayer games. Instead of only variations on mastery, anticipation, delight and frustration, you see trust/distrust, appreciation/hatred, sympathy/alienation and more. There are entire portions of the human emotional spectrum that are rarely triggered by single player games that become available in multiplayer designs.
  • Of the emotions observed, they tend to be more extreme. People emote more strongly and in some situations, you'll see tears, exuberant celebration and real romantic love.
  • The number of extroverts, people energized by social interaction, is around 60-70% in the general US population. Extroverts make up only around 25% in technical fields such as game development.
I have several sources for these claims

I can easily believe that a decreasing majority of existing play is indeed a solitary activity. However I see this more as a historical and cultural legacy, not a true measurement of the opportunity that lies ahead. Introverts tended to make games that other introverts enjoyed and these initial starting conditions have helped define the gamer identity. However the current game culture is fighting a losing battle against two big trends:
  • There is a competitive advantage in social play: Multiplayer games rate better on the core value proposition of 'fun'. If there are two products on the shelf and one offer a fun level of 3 and the other a fun level of 4, which one will you pick? In a competitive market, the one with the stronger value proposition tends to dominate.
  • The broader audience desires social play: New emerging markets are heavily extroverted. They desire social play. For many, games lack any significance to their lives unless they are social.
I can see the balance changing where 70% of play is social and 30% is focused on individual pursuits. Again, don't worry. Introverts will of course never go away. Even strongly multiplayer genres like MMORPGs still have a single player component.

Re: But it is just a chat room
Game designers create systems that mediate social interaction within their games. The design controls many of the communication channels, availability of certain player skills and resources, as well as access to information. The game design in a multiplayer game is the difference between a ball sitting on a field and two teams playing soccer.

Chat, or more specifically communication of intent, actions and bluffing is an essential aspect of any game involving multiple people. However, the designer still has a huge responsibility to actively shape and influence the experience. To paraphrase Lawrence Lessig, "Game Design is Law" and it has many equivalent moral and social obligations. Millions of people play multiplayer games and our designs strongly influence their behavior. To state that this form of design is 'merely chat' or 'taking the easy route out' means that you are failing to engage meaningfully with the critical concepts behind multiplayer and social game design.

Re: But Facebook games are shallow!
Yes. They are. But then again so was Pong when it first came out. As a commercial industry we have spent decades and billions of dollars on turning Pong into the AAA experiences of today. If you put yourself in the shoes of many an adult at the time that Pong came out, it too was seen as a toy.

Social games on Facebook have been out 2.5 years. That's all. Give them time. And a few billion dollars. And the passion of thousands of creative people. The end result should be quite delightful.



  1. You identify NP-complete problems by finding a reduction from them to a known NP-complete problem. This can be pretty routine. Did you mean the P = NP problem instead, which is indeed hard in the sense that there might not even be a solution?

  2. Social interactions are certainly rich and complex, but that makes them inefficient. That's fine in the real world, where people's goals are often nebulous and developing, but people playing games are trying to achieve very defined and specific goals. I think this makes people tend to a lowest common denominator in their interaction, doing the minimum of chatting (for example) required to reach the goal.
    So although human emotions are simple to evoke with multiplayer games, they would seem to tend towards a very small, common subset.

  3. So the only way to make 'games' that will be considered 'meaningful' is for everyone to start making multiplayer social network games?

    I sure hope that's not the case, because to me that sounds like the exact opposite of meaningful. In fact, it sounds like an incredibly bleak outlook for the future of the medium.

    Maybe it's just me, but some of this seemed less about relaxing or changing the constraints of a problem, and more about solving a similar problem because the actual problem is 'too hard'.

    The problem of creating meaningful interactive dialogue for example isn't 'solved' by us making the game multiplayer. In fact it seems self-defeating to me. Certainly, at our current level of technology there is nothing as good at communicating through dialogue as another human being is, and it may well be an incredibly interesting solution for some forms of entertainment. But the fact of the matter is that not everyone appreciates social entertainment, not all games are multiplayer games and I don't believe that all games should be.

    I'm actually wondering if the questions being asked need to be asked at all. "People in a room talking" is virtually impossible. But why do we need to be able to do this in a game at all? What separates a game from a more passive medium is its interactivity. Dialogue is considered essential in movies and books, but they are passive media and dialogue is critical because it's one of the only ways to convey a narrative or an idea.

    But it's entirely possible to create a game without dialogue, so perhaps we're asking the wrong question entirely. Can a game convey something meaningful without dialogue at all? Why can a single-player game not say meaningful things about the human condition, but passive media can, even when experienced alone? Why is it that we have to add other people in order to say something meaningful?

    As far as reaching a broader audience, I think I'm in complete agreement with what you've said there. And I do think you're completely right, that someone is going to figure out just the right combination of social engineering, interactivity and structure and make an absolutely huge, organic game on a massive scale and probably become very rich. I just don't think that it's the only solution for meaningful games, because to me that's going beyond being a game and becoming more of a shared social experiment.

  4. You're right that Farmville is taking over the world, and that people making similar inroads stand to make a lot more money than those focusing on traditional games.

    It won't be *my* money though, as I really can't stomach godawful games like that. I hope that the vast majority of game developers ignore your (completely economically sound advice) and continue spending their efforts making "real" games, for purely selfish reasons.

    Your point about big graphics != good game is valid, but do you really want to see gaming reduced to the Farmville level across the board? Shudder.

  5. I disagree. Some points:

    1. Board games are usually designed for multiple players, but I don't think board games have any more potential as a medium for meaningful commentary than video games.

    2. Movies don't have any players, but they're still pretty good at conveying a message. The audience is ultimately free to interpret the author's message however it wants, but the author still plays a major role in manipulating the audience's thoughts, and that means content.

    3. The content players create can certainly become meaningful, but it still requires the introduction of constraints so it can grow in meaningful directions instead of wandering about aimlessly. Authorial content provides form (graphics), function (mechanics) and context (setting, plot), all of which help shape the player's response to a game.

  6. How do you reconcile your anti singleplayer stance with the fact that the vast majority of the public doesn't care about multiplayer? For example, only 23% of Demigod players have even attempted to play online, and that's a game designed especailly for multiplayer. I'm afraid that there's no multiplayer promised land waiting for us just around the corner.

    I agree with your other points. I don't think that spacial and resource management games are the path to greater meaning. With regard to hardware, the problem is not horsepower, but how we use it. If web-based games offer the best way to reach our audience, then we should switch to that platform. I've been meaning to try Flash myself for quite a while.

  7. I propose "The Black Square: The Facebook game". The app consists of a black square rendered with flash and a friend-chat client where friends and friends of friends, etc. can discuss - synchronously *or* asynchronously - what the heck it's supposed to mean *to them*. They are encouraged to do so in an emotional manner through insult pre-sets. The game gets passed around virally because it is hinted to the players that the true meaning lies in (or is unlocked by) inviting all your friends.

    Anyway, I don't disagree with one particular piece of what you're saying (especially the part about designing systems rather than content), but overall, if you remove all these "arbitrary" constraints at once, you don't really get game design anymore - you get throwing a bunch of people together and telling them to play with the contents of their pockets in the worst case, and a facebook game like farmville (blegh!) in the average case. And that stuff isn't interesting to design. That's why constraints persist - designers *like* interesting, hard problems.

  8. Here are some more holes in your logic: In the bit about "spatial/temporal/math puzzles", you mention Gravitation and Passage, but your sentence is loaded with language like "very limited", "glimmer", "core group of players". You're trying to sweep under the rug the fact that someone has solved this problem.

    Another problem with this argument is that there are other types of "puzzles", that is, other types of decisions you can make within a game. How to talk to someone, perhaps, or what action is really the right thing to do, as in The Baron. Those kinds of decisions would make it easier to create a single-player game that says something about the human condition.

    I do agree that it's not necessary to exert direct control over a player's actions. For example, Dwarf Fortress affords a great deal of freedom, and the players have taken it in many odd directions.

    I actually do play Farmville, and I do get some enjoyment from it. Sure, it's simplistic, but it shows how something simple could be fun. It's just the multiplayer portion of the game that bothers me. I always feel uncomfortable clearing weeds and such from my friends' farms; I feel like I'm taking advantage of them. I think there will always be a significant number of people, like me, who play games to get AWAY from other people.

  9. a polynomial to express love, eh? let me try.

    x + x + x + x + xy + x

  10. I agree to the point that that's exactly what I'm doing and have been for some time now.

    It's different and therefore devalued even more than games that look like they are from the 80s. I know that, but, its the interesting place right now.

    To the point that I don't have a "game" I have a website.

    Something I would like to point out is that hard coding machine code in systems with less ram than this entire comment takes up is actually one of my skills. For realz, not for pretends. I can do that, I choose not to, because, well, that was then and this is now.

    PS, when are blogs going to mature such that we finally see the citizen kane of blogs?

  11. "a polynomial to express love ... x + x + x + x + xy + x."


  12. Have you previously defined "culturally meaningful"?

    Also, once you relax authorial control, production values and single-audience focus, you're talking about the gaming equivalent of pulp fiction - mass market archetypal experiences. And to that extent we're already there. We can already move each of a couple of million people to edges of emotion; where we struggle is in moving individuals to ecstasy.

  13. @Alex "The vast majority of the public doesn't care about multiplayer"
    Note that the Demigod stats you quote are for a core game in a niche market. It is a good data point, but it isn't wise to assume it applies to the broader population. In fact, this is the exact demographic that I would assume would not be interested in social play.

    Instead of looking at our current audience for core games, let’s take a step back and ask what activities are meaningful to the majority of people on this planet. The ones the immediately come to mind for me:
    - Family
    - Lovers
    - Friends
    - Religion
    - Politics

    Note that all of these involve highly social activities. These strike me as a rich area for creating meaningful experiences.

    Now, current games tend to deal with math, individual excellence and puzzle solving. There are absolutely people who derive great meaning from these activities. (I happen to be one of them) and it is clear that these are often individual pursuits. Heaven forbid we lose the opportunity to experience beauty of tetromino combinatorics seen through the lens of Tetris. But I’m not worried about such an outcome. There will always be single player games for introverts…do not stress over losing your supply of fresh puzzles. Yet there should be no argument that the population that derives meaning from these systems is small.

    As a designer, you have a choice of where to target your designs. If you want to create broadly meaningful experiences, perhaps it would be wise to target someone other than the anti-social geeks this time around. :-)

    How can movies evoke emotions?
    This issue keeps coming up. The simple answer is that interactivity has a different effect on the brain than what you get when you observe a stimuli. Games are focused on interactivity where movies are focused on stimuli. The differences between the two are deep and quite profound. However, there is some overlap, which causes confusion.

    Games rely on exploratory learning where players directly experience both failure and success. Through play, they build up a rich mental model composed of skills, intuition and values.

    Movies (and other static media) evoke pre-existing memories. Recall of memory in turn triggers associated emotions. When we recall the pain of being burnt, our body reacts with an emotional response. Many of our memories are already labeled with emotional tags and these experiences are broadly the same across large populations. Thus an author can produce a stimuli that is highly likely to cause a predictable reaction in an audience. We then synthesize this recalled experience into a new set of memories.

    The key difference here is that play results in a rich new experience, while evoked memories are extrapolated learning often associated with a very specific sequence of events. It is literally the difference between ‘on the job knowledge’ and ‘book learning.’

    Where it gets mildly complex is that you can put evocative stimuli in a game. Some titles like Final Fantasy do this as a key feature. Many types of evocative stimuli are absolutely critical for helping players understand metaphors about the system at hand. However, there is a trade off. Players learn by doing. The more you ‘tell’ the player, the less they ‘do.’ Movies focus completely on ‘telling’ and they are good at what they do. When games focus primarily on telling, they lose the ability to create a deep understanding of their core systems. The value of ‘play’ is lost.
    If you really want a player to gain a deeply meaningful understand of the human condition, you need to put them in a system where they can fail and experiment. Relying on evocative stimuli to tell them what they should be feeling is best left to movies. It is a different type of learning that should be left to a different tool. Why use multiplication tables to teach grammar when they are so much better at teaching multiplication?


  14. @Simon: Why single player games have difficulty saying interesting things about the human condition.

    You raise some very good questions. As you are aware, I tend to look at the act of playing a game as a process of learning skills that help the player effectively manipulate a system.

    As you get deeper into a system, players strip away a lot of the illusions and metaphors and see it as a set of rules. They see the Matrix, so to speak. When we get to this level of understanding, where we understand the Truth of the model, we tend to ask an important question. Are the skills I’m learning meaningful to me outside the magic circle?

    (We play ‘with no specified purpose’ because due to the blind hill climbing nature of exploratory learning, there is no predictable method of otherwise getting to this critical question.)

    However, once we can answer the question, we make a value judgment. If the skills are indeed valuable, we continue with the activity. If they are not valuable, we stop.

    A great example of a good system is a physics models. They are just a series of mathematical equations, yet when we get to the Truth of them, we find that they are quite applicable to the real world.

    Another interesting system is the slot machine. It allows us to experiment with environmental chance in a safe manner.

    However, as you begin to catalog various single player models, you find the Truth they reveal is often about the spatial and temporal manipulation I talk about in the essay. Even models that attempt to capture the essence of humanity rarely boil down to any real world insight.

    If I were to pursue this path, there are single player models that state a Truth about the human condition:
    - Rise and fall of cultures
    - Economics
    - War
    - Architecture
    - Traffic and flows of crowds

    There’s definitely some meat there and it has been explored in strategy games like Civilization or simulation games like the Sims or Theme Park. The Truths are interesting, albeit a tad academic in the end. The gut emotional lessons are typically missing. Which makes sense, since the system aren’t about gut emotional lessons.

    However, take a dating game involving real people and in a relatively safe environment, you can learn an immense amount of love and relationships. And your lessons will likely be laden with emotion. Ask any reality television participant.

    But Facebook games are shallow!
    Yes. They are. But then again so was Pong when it first came out. As a commercial industry we have spent decades and billions of dollars on turning Pong into the AAA experiences of today. If you put yourself in the shoes of many an adult at the time that Pong came out, it too was seen as a toy.
    Social games on Facebook have been out 2.5 years. That's all. Give them time. And a few billion dollars. And the passion of thousands of creative people. The end result should be quite delightful.

    @John Evans The exception proves the rule
    I readily admit that Passage and Gravitation are good examples of how single player mechanics involving spatial and temporal manipulation can be used as a metaphor for certain elements of the human condition. They are quite brilliant. Yet, the space they explore is limited. There is only so much you can say about people using X, Y coordinates.

    It is the difference between planting seeds in the harsh desert vs a verdant field of full of rich soil. A few seeds may take root in the former, but they are the exception, not the rule.

    I highly recommend that you talk to Jason about his latest thoughts on the topic. He, of all people, is a big believer in the future of multiplayer games. I added some links of interest to the reference section of the essay.

    take care

  15. I'll believe it when I see it.

    Multiplayer games have existed for a great deal longer than video games of any sort, but I've yet to see a single multiplayer game that creates emotions as rich as those of traditional narrative media. I'm sure the approach to meaningful video game content lies in a different direction than traditional narratives, but I don't think the multiplayer aspect is particularly necessary.

    Single player is no more a "false" constraint than any other constraint. Games are their constraints, and they are all artificial. Multiplayer or not, a game requires designed constraints or else it is just real life.

  16. @danc:

    However, as you begin to catalog various single player models, you find the Truth they reveal is often about the spatial and temporal manipulation I talk about in the essay. Even models that attempt to capture the essence of humanity rarely boil down to any real world insight.

    To me, this suggests that we should be asking how we can come up with models based on more interesting truths than spatial movement inside a simulation, rather than essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater and declaring that it's not possible to convey anything else.

    Interesting that you bring up dating games, incidentally. Have you seen any of the news coverage regarding Konami's recent DS-based dating sim, Love Plus? Admittedly it's pitched at a niche audience and so on, but it's very interesting to see how deeply affecting it has been for quite a lot of people because of certain peculiarities in its structure etc. These games are traditionally guilty of exactly what you describe, essentially boiling down to mathematical puzzles, but when you boil *any* gameplay mechanic down, at the very bottom level it has to be something that can be expressed in numerical terms, because the hardware is constrained that way too.

    Anyway, I'd argue that Facebook is itself the game you're describing. A social, multiplayer experience where there is no directorial control, everything is player-driven, there is meaningful dialogue and emotion, and it reaches a huge playerbase.

  17. So the point is that what the public has to say is as important as what the artist has to say, and by providing a set of rules and acting as referee, the artist makes the statement?

    Sorry, but this is the thinking that replaced radio plays with call-in shows and scripted television drama with reality-TV. And so I have a hard time seeing it as a good thing.

    I'm being a bit harsh, I know... There can be absolutely great multi-player experiences. But let's not pretend that user-created content is as new now as Pong was in 1980. There was user-created multiplayer content on text-based online games back in the 1990s and before.

    I'm also against the idea that these are 'false constraints'. The person who said that any game is a constraint is right. There's an idea that table-top role-play gaming should have its rules 'fade away' until it's just 'playing make believe' with a group of friends, yet there's still plenty of people buying 20-sided dice.

    So yes, the kids of today will view things differently, and do things differently, and design things differently. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be 'better'. It will be 'different'. We're not blind kittens.

    That said, I think that a lot of what is said here is right. Setting up the rules of a multi-player 'setting' is the first step in creating a 'game'; but it's not the end step. And the lure of playing with your friends is such a big draw that it makes 'games' that involve a bare minimum of thought or play popular online today, so you can image what an actually fulfilling game would do. But I think it's a blending of the old and new that will in the end be the most rewarding experiences; without some sort of 'guidance' to the game world, you do really just have a fancy chat room. It's a balance between drawing people by the nose and letting them run around and do whatever they want that's been a point of contention in pen-and-paper role-playing games forever, and just because current games that involve dumb scripted events and characters with glowing question marks over their head don't do it well, doesn't mean it can't (and won't) be done.

  18. Love Plus appears to be a Tamagotchi game, except instead of a pet or a baby, a man takes care of a woman. You are correct, this does say something interesting about the human condition.

    My point still stands. Yes, there are limited models out there and we'll discover more since billions more will be spent developing single player, content rich games. However, there are richer opportunities in other directions. In this case how much more meaningful would the dating game be if the girl on the other side was real? Or was a boy? Or was played by a group of other players?

    Aye, Facebook is arguable a game. I treat this blog as a multiplayer game, so I suppose that Facebook fits a broad definition of games as well.

    To push the point of expressing authorial intent through systems: Facebook in fact exhibits quite extreme directorial control. The designers (business owners? UX teams?) are constantly adjusting the service to express their ideal of a real world social graph. If you take mission statements seriously, the Facebook application is a social engineering exercise (that makes use of some game mechanics) and exists to give "people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."

    They've taken a very utilitarian approach to expressing their intent (not dissimilar to the utilitarian approach used by wargame pioneers). There is certainly room for more light hearted variants on the theme. :-)

    take care

  19. @Danc: But Facebook games are shallow!

    I love how, in one paragraph you're arguing that although Facebook games are shallow they can grow into something more sophisticated, and in the next paragraph you're arguing that games like Passage are limited, but that they can't grow past that.

    I think that single-player games can grow past that, and that a suggestion of what this might look like can be found with The Sims. Here we have a game that, through its mechanics alone, suggest that homosexual relationships are no different than heterosexual relationships, and also is a critique on consumerism. Futhermore, The Sims along with Nitendogs and Animal Crossing show ways of making meaningful connections with the player.

    The Sims also illustrates that you can sidestep the issue of people talking around a table. Though to be honest, that issue seems like a strawman. People sitting around a table is not an instrinsic part of all stories. You can show something interesting about people without having them sitting around talking, and in fact writers are told to 'show, don't tell'.

    What really bothers me though is that I just don't believe that making a meaningful multiplayer game is any easier than a meaningful singleplayer game. Really, I think that you're just exchanging one hard problem for a slightly different hard problem.

  20. I like the idea of "checking your assumptions" but in the end I feel like many of the others have pointed out that relying on multi-player to provide conversation isn't really all that interesting. If I want conversation, I don't need to do it in a game. I'll just call up some friends.

    The reason the single player game is where the effort is is the game many of us dream about is the Holodeck. We want to be able to step in (or plug in) and experience another world, slay the dragon, fly through space, save the princess, get the hottie. We want to role play and live the fantasy we see in movies and fiction. Multi-player is unlikely to give us that. Multi-player gives us the same politics and people issues from the real world into the games we were trying to use to escape them. In the real world and in multi-player we don't get to be the hero and have the hottie fall for us. (whatever your definition of hottie is).

    I guess I can see multi-player in terms of D&D where I play with friends and they provide the conversation but that's no closer to solving the problem because the problem that needs to be solved is providing a human quality artificial game master to direct the game, provide NPC conversation and direct the players. So, switching to multi-player really solves nothing.

  21. Very thought-provoking point. I agree that there is an immense amount of unexplored potential in social games, which I am very excited about, but I wouldn't discount single-player experiences either.

    For the same reasons that non-fiction books exist, alongside novels both trashy and great, I think more intellectual, single-player games will continue to exist. It was your articles about teaching skills through games that helped convince of this most strongly, actually. Single-player games will remain, to teach us chemistry or cooking or agriculture or whatever, though they might involve a social component as well.

    But right now, social games for artistic purposes are the least explored, the least understood, and perhaps the most different from what has already developed. So I do think it is worth crusading for.

    To reply to some of the other comments, which I do agree with for the most part, it's not about conversation. Sitting around the table talking is just an example, that stands in for all the things that are easy for humans to do but more or less impossible for computers.

    I wrote about this same idea quite a while ago, in the blog post Instant AI - Just Add People. I'm sure I got the idea from Danc originally, though.

  22. The Holodeck
    gman, I'm glad you brought up the Holodeck. At some point I'll need to do an essay on how this meme has polluted and corrupted the development of games. :-) Just as there exist false constraints, there also exist false prophets: big exciting visions that are ultimately a dead end.

    History is replete with false prophets: The dream of a perpetual motion machine, the dream of turning lead into gold using solvents, or more recently the rocket jetpack. All these ended up being hard problems and were ultimately abandoned by all but a fringe element.

    The Holodeck isn't real. It is a narrative made exciting and tangible through the use of narrative tricks and special effects. It is the equivalent of dog fighting in space as shown by Star Wars. Absolutely thrilling and it certainly sparks the imagination, but unfortunately functioning inventions in a real world are bound by physics quite different than those found on film. The Holodeck may not be realistic for the next 50 years. It may not even be desirable.

    I look at the Holodeck and see a narrative that expresses an introverted adolescent's dream. Escape, fake people who will treat me like a friend, and canned excitement to replace that which is missing from my current life.

    This is such a depressing reality if brought and made real.

    First: The basic isolation of the vision. Instead of bringing people together it pushes people into their own isolated bubble.

    Second: The experience of reading about a character being locked in a deadly trap vs actually being locked in a deadly trap is radically different. One is an empathetic tingle, while the other is the actual experience. It is the difference between watching a TV reality show and being on one. Do you really think the guy eating the bowl of slug vomit is having as much fun as you watching him eat it? This realism fetish ends up yielding a very different experience than what is portrayed in the fake flights of fancy you watched as an impressionable child. Narrative cheats always make their ideas look good. Even Marxism was amazing on paper.

    Now it is incredibly important that we have mad visionaries pursuing fringe dreams. I love the idea that some people will go after the dream of making a Holodeck. And arguably we've learned a handful of techniques from our initial dogged pursuit of an unlikely concept.

    Yet currently, 90% of the game industry's effort is being put into a questionable vision that is yielding diminishing returns. What a waste.

    If history is any indication, there is bound to be a correction. Alchemy gave way to chemistry and physics. The vision of a flying man gave way to aeronautics and aerospace. It is beyond time that the false prophet of the Holodeck be replaced by pragmatic techniques for bringing meaningful games to the masses. That means scientifically looking at what actually works and building off the results. Not ignoring the result in order to make an arbitrary vision come true.

    Did you know for example that player respond stronger emotionally to multiplayer games than single player games? That they rate them as more enjoyable? That they play for longer? This is a big broad trend. There are exceptions, but they are just that...exceptions. Here's a thought exercise: If you were to put the dream of the Holodeck out of your mind and you were to accept the findings above to be true, what sort of games would you make? What does would it mean for our future vision of game design?

    take care

  23. Dan,

    Great post. Thought provoking. I take issue with a couple points, but that doesn't detract from my overall agreement.

    Some points:
    - While I agree multi-player is a rich environment in which to explore a bunch of these concepts, it shouldn't negate our search for solutions to the AI problems. Indeed, perhaps Turing AI or AI-driven narrative is 50 years out, but that doesn't mean we should give up. So, parallel paths, not 'student body left'.

    - I do wonder whether multiplayer to some degree breaks the magic circle. Can I as a player *really* test anything without consequence when there's a real person on the other end? Consequence can be minimized, but it's still there. Doesn't negate your point, but worth considering.

    - Your point about AI-driven narrative being difficult deliver "the conveyance of the developer’s crafted message" assumes there is a *crafted message*. See Clint Hocking's latest post for a well thought out contrarian opinion:
    Money quote: "I believe very fundamentally that the more authorship is removed, the more room there is in a game for beauty. By extension, I further believe that the more the 'auteur' abdicates his own 'singular vision' to those with whom he is collaborating in the creation of the game, the more room there is in the game for beauty"

    So maybe this form of AI is a tool toward abdicating the auteur's vision? Hmmm...

    Finally, on this point:"The vast majority of single player games have their roots in either timing, mathematics or spatial manipulation puzzles. These systems, though entertaining and relaxing, have great difficulty modeling emotions. "

    I agree this is true in many cases, there are cases where the SYSTEMS themselves evoke emotion, and state things about the human condition. Examples like Ayiti and The McDonalds game come to mind. Both statements attempting to model real world systems subject to feedback loops that make winning next to impossible. And learning that first hand as the player, gives you an inkling what it's like to walk a mile in the shoes of a 3rd world laborer, minimum wage worker, etc.

    Like you said, tough problems, and I'm all for taking new approaches. I don't think we shouldn't keep at the current tough problems as well though.

  24. substituting ai dialog with chat room conversation ... sorry but that's kind of lame! there are many reasons why i run from multiplayer games. one is the dialog coming from other players that spoils the game for me.

  25. I don't think it's as simple as dismissing the Holodeck as a false ideal.

    First you dismissed it because of physics. The holodeck idea can be implemented just as well if you plug your brain into some computer rather then step inside a room. In that case the physics issues disappear. That ability is fast approaching.

    The second is that it is some how isolating. There's nothing that says the experience can't be multi-player but the problems are still just as hard single or multi-player. Sure, like in WoW, I wouldn't mind slaying the dragon with a bunch of friends. In the holodeck version, I shouldn't be able to tell the difference between NPCs and real people except that likely I'd assume any character not on a quest is likely not a real player (who wants role play the talkative full of stories bar tender?)

    Whether you can make those NPCs for single player or multi-player they are just as important.

    As for real pain like eating worms, I don't need it to be real, just real enough to be fun. My BFG can feel heavy but my simulated character has no problem carrying it easily for long periods.

    The issue of multi-player getting higher ratings is a copout IMO. There are tons of very crappy games that are fun simply because they are multi-player. Can't design a fun game? Tack on multi-player and it claim you created fun when in reality the players created the fun, not the designer.

    Take care

  26. My comment to your post was around 3000 characters over the limit, so I will instead link you to my response via my blog.

    In short, I disagree with a large number of your points - as a single-player game enthusiast, many of your arguments ring very untrue to my ears. I hope you see fit to continue this conversation.


  27. "Did you know for example that player respond stronger emotionally to multiplayer games than single player games? That they rate them as more enjoyable? That they play for longer? This is a big broad trend. There are exceptions, but they are just that...exceptions."

    I'm genuinely interested to know where you get these stats from danc. I am in the multiplayer camp myself, but I've seen a lot of people's comments after the 23%-attempted-multiplayer-in-Demigod issue and it looks like I am quite in the minority.

  28. Usually I get bored of multiplayer games after awhile. The game gives me some really neat abilities initially, which I have fun using - but then I realize that it'll be an endless grind.

    On "Multiplayer Games are the Future:"

    You're right, but for the wrong reason. I'll compare this situation with the development of music.

    Just as our elements of music have evolved over time, so have our instruments. The piano did not exist in the Baroque era, but its predecessor, the harpsichord, did; however, the harpsichord could not hold a single note over a period of time the way a piano can by pressing the sustain pedal.

    So the Baroque composers got creative. Since they couldn't just play notes and sustain them, they instead developed a style where they fluttered between two notes, like a slow trill, which didn't exactly "sustain" a note the same way as a wind instrument, but it did continue the two sounds for however long they were needed in the music.

    Years later in the Classical period, after the piano started to make its appearance, the pieces composed were a little slower and used longer notes instead of the short, fluttering Alberti bass of the Baroque period. But was the Alberti bass thought of as completely backwards, and shelved forever? No! The two different ways of producing a sustained sound provided two different "colors" to music; one of them feels much faster, or at least never stops moving - the other is very clear and direct. Now, in the Modern era, the composer has so many choices because of all the developments of music over time - do I want a fluttering Alberti bass? Or maybe cluster chords out of the Impressionistic era? What if I added in a celeste part here?

    Your single-player vs multi-player argument is the same idea. The two perspectives are limits to the game, but they are also "colors"; a single-player game has different strengths than a multi-player game. It values the narrative and gives the player uninterrupted access to the game world. A multi-player game usually limits the player's access, sometimes by a "You Must Be This Level to Enter the Dark Sanctuary," sometimes by another player killing all the goblins in the area you were farming for goblin ears. Narratives in multiplayer games (especially MMOs) are tough or impossible to create, which is why games like Farmville suit the multi-player genre so well.

    We may have entered a "Multiplayer Era," where the majority of games created are social games. But there will still be single-player games, and not because of the reasons you listed. Would you call a choir performing the Handel Messiah a bunch of old fogies that "stubbornly stick to their dead end craft, serving a smaller and more rarified audience while the world shifts around them?"

    Making something meaningful is not about following trends. Meaning comes from having something to say. There are games that beg to be made into multiplayer games, but you can't add meaningfulness where there was none just by adding players. Your players will react to the lack of purpose and will not stay (I know I wouldn't).

    Don't think in trends; think in colors. What "color" will this mechanic add to my game? What situations will this combination of mechanics present? What needs am I addressing, and what questions am I asking?

  29. Your point is that multiplayer games with player-created content should be a fertile area for creating meaningful games, and I don't disagree. However, after thinking about this for a week I have two observations. The first I'm not sure is helpful, though it is curious. The second, though, makes me think that multiplayer is not the only hope for meaningful games.

    The first observation: It is interesting that "people in a room talking" is a mainstay of both movies and books, and yet the actual act of enjoying a movie or book is primarily a private one. Sure, we go to the movies with our friends, but while the actors spend most of the movie talking the audience is expected to be quiet. (Though, as with games, we love to talk with our friends about the experience afterwards). I'm not sure what to make of this. Like I said, curious but maybe not helpful.

    The second: There other arts that are often not about "people in a room talking." Painting, music, photography, sculpture, installation art, etc. Most of these are usually enjoyed by oneself and often do not involve people in a room talking. Many don't involve people at all (Beethoven, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frank Lloyd Wright)

    There's a strong focus in this essay on books and movies, both of which rely strongly on narrative. Multiplayer seems like fertile ground if you are trying to explore how games can have meaningful narrative. However, what about these other arts? What is the game equivalant of a good photograph? Or a symphony? Abstract paintings seem to be enjoyed on the merits of their aesthetic appeal. Single player games like Passage or The Marriage seem to come closer to this than multiplayer games. I'm not sure where this leads, but it is interesting to ponder.

  30. @Mark
    The answer to question of why most evocative stimuli is (primarily) an individual pursuit comes from how these experiences are processed by the brain.

    A movie relive or reprocess an existing experience that is already stored away in your noggin.

    A game lets you create a new experience.

    It is the difference between looking at a photo of a party and experiencing being at the party.

    The former can easily be a single player activity. The later is inherently multiplayer (since in this specific example, parties are inherently social events)

    Re: Other arts that are perhaps better examples:
    - Improv: Where some of the improv crew are players
    - Government: Where the game designer is the legislative branch and the code is the executive branch. Customer service is the judicial branch.
    - Architecture: Where design is the architecture and the players are people using the building. If LeCorbusier considers a house 'a machine for living', then a formal game can be considered 'a machine for playing'.

    take care

    PS: I updated the essay with a notes section.

  31. "To the participants in the conversation, this chatter that results is more entertaining than the best writing or acting performed by the top talent in any medium."

    I'm going to call into question this assumption.

    At its most basic level, if this were true people would only go to movies by themselves: If they had someone else to spend time with, they would obviously prefer to spend time chatting with them.

    You can see the proof of this in virtually any MMO. While there are undoubtedly a few people who play World of Warcraft in order to hang out in the chat channels all day, that isn't true for the vast majority of players.

    Nor am I particularly convinced that the typical content of a WoW chat channel really qualifies the game as "culturally meaningful".

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  33. You've obviously put a lot of thought into this article, but I disagree with your premise. I haven't had a multiplayer game create more "meaning" than a single player game. Perhaps the social interaction of the players playing the game has been meaningful, but often it was completely disconnected from the game. It was the social interaction that was meaningful. The game was merely a meeting place. To say the game held meaning would be like saying the room a party was held in was meaningful: it has some impact, but it does not deserve the majority of the credit.

    Furthermore, your idea that single player games cannot provoke emtion is ridiculous to me. The most obvious example to me is Shadow of the Colossus. I doubt I'll ever play a multiplayer game that touches on the same feelings of lonliness (you're the only living human pictured for the vast majority of the game), regret (the moment after you slay your first Colossus is one of the most impacting moments I've ever seen in a videogame), despair and hope. To say that a Facebook game will reach those levels of emotion seems almost insulting.

  34. Great article as always, although I found myself feeling a bit "get to this point" reading this one. As soon as I realized that "multiplayer" was the big answer, I was a big disinterested as obviously multiplayer can solve any "problem" of game design - as well as it can break it. The biggest problem here is - although this is really just another constraint - developers don't have control over a multiplayer environment. In Nintendo's pictochat, you don't know if there is going to be a meaningful, growing conversation or relationship in a pictochat room, or someone just drawing obscene things. Granted, this can be solved by chat filters and such, as seen in environments like Club Penguin. But to fully "solve" the problem of human nature, you find yourself back at the other end, with all of the constraints. That said, I cannot deny that I made one of my best friendships exclusively possible through the MMO game EverQuest, and I am sure many other people share such a story. So, obviously, multiplayer is a very important point to consider, I just don't think it is the "true answer" to all of these issues.

    As far as "big developers" holding onto high tech specifications and such, well, I'd have to argue that maybe you're defining the wrong people as "big devleopers". Maybe a decade or so ago Epic Games and id Software would have been my immediately choices as "big developers". However, in today's game development landscape, I wouldn't even think of them for a moment before blurting out "PopCap". And this is coming from someone who grew up on Quake.

    Thanks for the great read as always! Keep the insightful and thought provoking articles coming.

  35. Re the chat rooms. Saw a girl on a forum who wanted a 360 for x-mas. Not very interested in games though but explained that ALL of her friends were playing online and voice chatting with each other while playing. So she wanted the 360 JUST to be able to connect and participate in the discussions.

    Found it very interesting; a communication platform for you and your friends, integrated with multiplayer games, text chat, movies etc. And a subscription system that ensures income for the service provider no matter what. The traditional view on the console as a games machine with games full och square jawed killers and little springy plumbers is rather limited in an age where the social network means everything. Or atleast enough for someone to buy a 360 as a very power hungry chat device.

  36. Until I read your notes at the end, I was about get on here and leave a "Get your hands off my introversion, you damn, dirty ape!!" comment. :D

    To be honest, I have a somewhat opposite response to the "multiplayer is the answer to everything" approach. Really, I view that as something of a cop-out to take responsibility off of developers. Like, "why bother creating content when we can just put out a game engine?"

    I also get a little rolly-eyed when I hear people theorizing about the implications of upcoming technology. I remember back in the 90's where everyone was talking about never needing to leave your home again because shopping, work, school, EVERYTHING, would be done online. That didn't happen. Now people are saying 90% of computing will take place on a 2.5"x3.5" screen, aka a phone, and I just have to chuckle. That just sucks!! Are you kidding?!

    Then, I see industry folks on C-SPAN talking about YouTube and user content becoming the future of entertainment. Really?! Your argument against single-player strikes me as the same line of logic saying that user submitted YouTube clips are gonna replace television and movies. To me, that would be the DEATH of meaningful content. Saying single player games are dinosaurs for the socially inept and those incapable of modern thinking is like saying the same thing about movies, television, books, music, etc. Video games are like, what, 30 years old? I think your giving up on single player a little soon.

    Of course, you DO have a fantastic point about extroverts not being catered to in video-gaming and that someone will eventually figure out a way to reach them. On one hand, I REALLY don't care since they have so much other stuff they like to do (I mean, they like to leave the house!), but on the other hand, it does scare me a little. If you are right and extroverts become the primary consumer of gaming, say 2/3rds, business, especially corporations, runs on the model of finding the one or two archetypes that make the most money and everything else can rot. That's what happened with major record labels. Under that scenario, I suspect large budget, single player games would virtually cease to exist. I guess then I'd have to buy most of my video games from Indie developers, just like I've had to buy ALL my music from Indie labels for the last 10-15 years. In small amounts, I kinda like multiplayer games, but most of the time, they shear fact of having to depend on other players (for anything!), makes them more stressful than fun.

    To be honest, I think the real reason multiplayer only/MMO style games are being pursued as vigerously as they are by the industry is because that's a sure way to defeat piracy and rake in the dough. I don't think "meaningful content" has a lick to do with it.

  37. I'm a little surprised by how negative the reactions here are. I think the point is that the staggering popularity of FarmVille and Mafia Wars, is because of the (limited) social inclusion there is in them.

    I think most people with a sincere interest in games and what makes them tick find the current offering of these (mainly Facebook) "Social Games" pretty lacking. If they're so bad, though, then we should focus on what is good about them, and see if we can combine these attributes to make something we're a little more proud of as an industry.

    One thing I am a little worried about, and Danc mentions it in the post on Testosterone and competitive gaming, is the tendency for games to shy away from skill-based activity in favour luck- or grind-based rewards. After playing through a couple dozen of these social games recently, it seems like Social Game Designers are stripping out the "Hard Fun" of skill-based victory without replacing it with a more meaningful, socially-involved payoff.*

    I think it's because of this hollowness that classical gamers reject these new Social Games. However, we are overlooking the fact that they contain enough entertainment that non-gamers, who don't know that Roller Coaster Kingdom is a watered-down version of Theme Park and that Restaurant City and Café World are the retarded grandchildren of Pizza Tycoon.

    Perhaps most important, though, is that by failing to provide better alternatives to these disappointing shadows of early 90's gaming, we fail to do any good for either camp - widening the (artificial) rift between people who like games as social facilitators, and people who like games because they possess some intrinsic fun.

    Instead of deriding these dumb stupid social games, we should look at what makes them popular, and see if we can make them good as well.

    * I think I would suggest another false constraint that games must be both Symmetric, and worse, Zero-Sum. I hate these assumptions and I want them to die.

  38. Danc,

    I really enjoyed your article, and even if I don't agree with everything, I have to admit that I have the same point of view on most of your ideas.

    I would like to go further next year and use this kind of article as requirements to produce different/meaningful games. I would like you to follow this process and be maybe an active part of the project. I'm working for a huge company in Europe which is more about "communication" and "social interaction" than games, and which wants to move into game more deeply next year. I'm in charge of the R&D on games and apps for this company.

    I would be delighted to discuss that further with you. Please contact me if you are interested.

  39. dehix

    I didn't see your email address. Feel free to write me at

    take care

  40. Interesting post, Danc.

    I'm late to the party, but I just want to throw my hat in the ring and agree with the points already made by John Evans, Simon, and Kim. I think that the notion of spatial and temporal metaphor is still a potentially fruitful avenue of pursuit for expressing meaning through game systems with an arbitrary number of players (well, >= 1), and I still hold out hope that it can yield some more interesting results that will eventually surpass Rohrer's existing efforts.

    Just because Jason is currently focusing on multiplayer games (which, just to clarify, I also consider a perfectly valid direction to explore) doesn't reduce the landscape of systemic and spatial metaphor games to a barren "desert", as you attempt to characterize it. There are plenty of other folks exploring this territory, such as Rod Humble with The Marriage or Doris C. Rusch with Akrasia, and I find your stance to be unnecessarily dismissive of their efforts.

    "There is only so much you can say about people using X, Y coordinates" makes for a swell sound bite, but it is ultimately reductive and overlooks the tremendously elastic and diverse expressive potential of metaphor.

    PS - Seconding John's mention of The Baron as an example of a single-player game with an intriguing approach to presenting meaningful choices.

  41. Playing Baron now. I've been blocked by the author about 15 times so far. Interactive fiction irritates me with how it pretends to allow player agency. (Most AAA console titles suffer the same issue, so I try to be somewhat even handed in my irritation) But I will still play through...

    Exploring spatial-temporal metaphors
    There are indeed plenty of folks pursuing this territory. Arguably, single player consumable games with a narrative arc are the predominant form of game being created on mature platforms and mature genres. When you have so many lifetimes and fortunes poured into an activity there are bound to be a few passionate devotees that attempt to raise their craft to a form of art. It is the way of culture. It happens with food. It happens with song. It happens with smelling pieces of wood. Certainly it can happen with the narrative elements of a game.

    So yes, you can take whatever brief spark that is in this particular niche of game design and you can polish and tweak and probe and lavish immense thought and attention upon it. Good. Each creator has their own star that guides them.

    And yet...

    There are other paths that talk about games in terms of religion, government, culture, sports where players interact with other players in ways that concretely shape their world.

    Why not take a bit of time to explore those?

    If you are in the same place in another 20 years that you are now, complaining about the same narrative limitations that game designers have complained about for the last 20 years, maybe it is worth looking at games from a new perspective. I suggest one informed by the natural expressive talents inherent in the medium: people, systems, culture, and learning.

    take care

  42. Very nice article and comments. I would just like to say that "social" games are actually anti-social. Those games can turn people into zombies if they don't quit playing them. They make players believe they are engaging in a social activity, when in reality they are chatting with strangers about stuff that nobody in the real world cares about. Also, those games are more addictive, because when you play against other people the possibilities are endless. For instance, in WoW people get tired of the dungeons, quests, even raiding, but not from PvP and Arena. You also have real people on your team, so you feel like a part of a group. Just look at youtube at all the videos of how people are trying to quit WoW or other supposedly social games, it's just like trying to quit drugs. Yes, there are conversations in the game but after you close the game you realize that this is not real social interaction. Finally, this problem with MMO games is shown very well in the Avatar movie: the hero plays a virtual game and he becomes so involved in the game that he loses weight, doesn't shave, stops going out and spends most of his time in the game. He even has a girlfriend in the game and little by little loses all touch with reality.

  43. I'm not sure what to say, so this will probably be a little disjointed.

    I dislike it when people make statements that seem to say that something is inherently better than something else. i.e. multi-player is more capable than single-player of being meaningful and deep; at least, that's what I read into your words. I'm a little annoyed at the moment.

    Multiplayer rarely excites me, and reading your words feels like you're trying to lock me out of a world of meaningful videogames simply because I prefer to play and design single-player games.

    I realize single-player isn't going anywhere, but that's not enough to calm me right now. I know single-player is just as capable as multi-player. There are just certain experiences that you can't have in a multi-player environment, experiences that require the player to know that it's just him and the designer working together to make an experience.
    Of course multi-player has its place too, I know that. Sleep is Death is one game I very much like the idea of even thought I can't see myself playing it, and can't wait to see more games come along that follow the same or similar principles.


    Mostly it's just the tone I (perhaps mistakenly) inferred from your post that's bothering me. I realize you're probably just trying to make a specific point and being as blunt about it as possible.
    However if you do think that way... well, good sir, your challenge is accepted.

    I'm currently neck deep in a project... a co-op only platformer, in fact... but I have an idea in mind for a single-player game about player world-sculpting and becoming a vampire, and as soon as I'm free I'm writing it up as a proper design document. I'm playing it out in my head already and I'm getting that special feeling that it just might be worth pursuing to completion. I'll make sure to let you know how that goes, maybe I can turn you just a little. Probably not though, and maybe that's for the better. We all need to be different from each other.

    I'm rambling so I'll call it quits.

    (Despite disagreeing with you I'm bookmarking this blog because you do bring up a lot of good points and I enjoy reading what you have to say.)

  44. (sorry for commenting on such an old post, but i think i have something worthwhile to say)

    I definitely agree that "more isn't better" regarding content and machine power, but you can't toss out single player games because they impose certain constraints any more than you can toss out the law because it places constraints on how people conduct themselves and their business. Some of the most impressive, compelling games i've seen are single player. By contrast, WoW, Facebook, and any other "social games" often offer the same bland (to me at least) social experience. If i want to be social, i can just go out to a cafe or a store; i don't need to spend my gaming time doing it too. I game because the games i play offer a unique experience different than anything else i know.

    Making games multiplayer also imposes a hard problem: that of controlling players. No one likes griefers, trolls, or insulting/rude/gross (for lack of a better word) players, but adding mechanisms for communication between players means you either have to accept an unrated (or mature, depending) rating for your game or control what the players can do and say in your game. Controlling the latter is nigh-on impossible (see any number of forums and chat sites that try to filter content), and controlling the former is almost as tough.

    All i'm saying is that before you "cast off the constrainsts of single player games", look at what walls you'll be running into in your chosen type of game first.